Labor of Gloves

No one thinks much of the Mexican boxers who fight out of Homestead. But that's nothing new to Johnny Torres. When he was a fighter, no one thought much of him, either.

Steve Torres entered the amateur ranks eight years ago, at age eight, and lost his first eight fights. Then he began winning. A tenth grader at South Dade High, he helps his family pick squash in the summer and on weekends. His brothers, twelve-year-old Santos and eighteen-year-old Jesus, box, too. "If you win, you accomplish something and you go somewhere," Steve says quietly. "I figure I'll turn pro about eighteen or nineteen and see how it goes." Right now his uncle Johnny is encouraging him to work toward the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Carlota Torres, Johnny's mother, recalls the different towns in which each of her eight children was born, along with the crop the family was picking at the time: cherries in Travers City, Michigan; tomatoes in Marion, Indiana, Wauseon, Ohio, and Okeechobee; cotton in Belleville, Arkansas; cucumbers and squash in Boynton Beach. By the time her last child, Joe, was born at Jackson Memorial Hospital, the Torreses had settled in Homestead.

Rosa Perez, whose family had moved from Puerto Rico in the early Seventies to work in the fields of Homestead, was walking down Redland Road toward the Redland Labor Camp when she first saw Johnny Torres standing on a corner near her house. The year was 1973; Rosa was thirteen and on her way to apply for a summer job offered by Johnny's uncle Henry Torres. A community activist, Henry Torres secured money from the county every summer to hire kids for cleanup and maintenance jobs in the labor camps.

Johnny, who had just finished ninth grade, was a year older than Rosa, and she was intimidated by his ample Afro and tough squint. But they met at a drive-in movie later that summer, she in a carload of girlfriends, he with a group of boys. After that they were inseparable. They married in March of the following year. Torres never returned to school.

Less than a month before the wedding, 32-year-old Henry Torres was murdered on the baseball field he had helped build at the South Dade Labor Camp, ostensibly in an argument over the outcome of a baseball game. Octavio Zuniga, a resident of the camp, shot Torres once in the head; he later turned himself in to police.

Johnny Torres insists the quarrel was only the pretext for the killing of his uncle; the real reason was Henry Torres's relentless advocacy. The father of six children, Torres alienated some parents, his nephew recalls, by insisting they send their children to school (and checking to see that they went) instead of putting them to work in the fields during school hours. If a child didn't have shoes, Henry would buy some. At a memorial service covered by the South Dade News Leader, William Maxwell, principal of Redland Elementary School, told those assembled: "I hope you have the courage to gain for yourselves what he tried to gain for you." The school established an annual Henry M. Torres award for community service that endures to this day.

The baseball diamond where Henry Torres was murdered is overgrown now. The swing sets he erected 25 years ago are stripped and rusted, and pairs of tied-together athletic shoes hang from the telephone wires. What the workers used to call the barracas, the long barracks-type housing structures at the center of the camp, are in ruins. Except for a sign at one end announcing a day-care center and the Centro de Fe, Esperanza y Amor (Faith, Hope and Love Center) at the other, the area looks deserted.

Nearby, though, children play in rutted front yards brightened by trellises woven with hibiscus and roses; older boys gather in the narrow streets and on a basketball court that is being devoured by weeds and has no nets hanging from the rims. Ignacio and Roberto Duran live here with their older brother Leonilo and their parents Eloisa and Gelacio, in one of the camp's square, pastel-colored houses. The family moved from Mexico City to Homestead seven years ago, seeking steady agricultural work; a few years before that, they had left their native Nueva Italia, Michoacan, to join the thousands of rural families crowding into the Mexican capital to escape worsening poverty in the countryside.

About four years ago, when they were living in an apartment HurricaneAndrew would later rip apart, Eloisa Duran heard about Johnny Torres's gym and asked Leonilo and Ignacio if they'd like to learn how to box. She didn't mention the possibility to Roberto, she says, because his vision was impaired by a cataract in his left eye. As it happened, Leonilo wasn't interested. But Roberto was, and he and Ignacio soon were spending all their free time at the gym. There wasn't much time to spend. When they weren't in school, they had to work -- first in the fields, then at nurseries. Now the brothers run their own landscaping and yard-maintenance business.

Roberto has long, thin limbs, a straight nose, the faint beginnings of a mustache, and, like his mother and his brother Ignacio, a cleft in his chin. His light brown eyes don't look blind, just slightly mournful. He likes his work, which involves a lot of planting and nurturing. "It's like when a house is ugly, and you fix it up to look beautiful," Roberto says with a quick smile. In the summers, he doesn't go to the gym at all because he works until early evening, but now that he's started tenth grade at Homestead High, he has resumed training after school. His mother is not too happy about it; he will have an operation for his cataract, but not for a few years, and until then she worries. Neither she nor Torres had high hopes for Roberto when he accompanied other boxers from Homestead to Fort Lauderdale for the state Golden Gloves championships this past spring. But he won top honors in his weight class. He insists the eye doesn't bother him, that once he gets in the ring, instinct takes over.

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